Albany Rally Raises a Cry for Old Rents, New Governor

New York Times, May 21, 1997
ALBANY -- Thousands of tenants, wearing pink and white hats and threatening election day retribution for Gov. George E. Pataki, descended on the state Capitol today for an exuberant, placard-waving rally in support of extending the state's rent regulations.

The renters, bused from New York City and its suburbs, were the largest crowd seen here since State University students protested tuition increases two years ago.

Organizers said the protesters were between 6,500 and 8,000 strong; Senator Joseph L. Bruno, the majority leader, who wants to do away with the rent laws, said there were fewer than 2,000. Police officials gave widely varying figures that fell between these estimates.

While the demonstration might not have changed any minds in the Legislature, as political theater it was quite a show: a throng made up mostly of women, many of them elderly and many visiting Albany for the first time, waved placards and fists, their caps proclaiming, "I'm a tenant and I vote."

Mr. Pataki, though absent, was the star of the show, the subject of every speech and placard. He was also seen on the T-shirts dozens of people wore, which pictured a New York Post front page from a few weeks ago that bore his photograph and the headline, "Kiss It Goodbye," referring to the rent laws.

The Governor has proposed replacing the current laws, which expire on June 16, with a system that would remove rent protections from apartments when the tenants move out or die.

Tenant organizers and Democratic legislators insist that the proposal is unacceptable.

In a speech to the receptive crowd, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver accused Mr. Pataki of allowing Mr. Bruno to scare renters for months with threats to end the current system, before the Governor stepped in with a more moderate proposal. Mr. Silver, Albany's most powerful Democrat, advocates renewing the current laws.

If the Governor "wanted to ride in like the cavalry, why is he beating a dead horse?" Mr. Silver asked.

Mr. Pataki and Mr. Bruno later said they were struck by how few people turned out, saying that organizers had predicted 10,000 to 20,000 people. "I think there was a deliberate effort to frighten them," the Governor said. "I don't think they understand the facts of my proposal, and I think it's unfortunate when people try to put a political agenda ahead of doing what is right."

Many of the protesters said they were unused to political activism. Paula Feddersen, 60, a bookkeeper from Greenwich Village (rent-controlled studio, $356 a month), said the last protest she attended was against the Vietnam War. "It's exciting," she said. "They'll hear us if we speak strongly enough."

Vera Clarke, 43, a nurse's aide from the Bronx (rent-stabilized one-bedroom, $675 a month), said, "This is my first rally, and I hope Pataki is scared."

Politicians, drawn to an audience like gulls to a landfill, gathered by the dozens to give speeches, lead chants or just wave and smile.

Lieut. Gov. Betsy McCaughey Ross, a Republican who has broken with the Governor on rent laws, saying his plan would deregulate the market too fast, waded into the crowd, shaking every hand that was extended and some that weren't. Later, she invited tenant protesters and reporters to her offices for an "Oprah"-esque venting of travails and fears.

City Councilman Sal F. Albanese of Brooklyn, who is running in the Democratic primary for mayor, greeted nonplussed-looking New Yorkers as they got off the buses. Lest there be any doubt as to his identity, two of his aides flanked him, shouting, "Say hello to Sal Albanese."

Another mayoral hopeful, Ruth W. Messinger, the Manhattan Borough President, and City Council Speaker Peter F. Vallone, who is considering a run for governor, also made the trip.

Banners with the names of several office holders and office seekers unfurled in the crowd, but those holding the banner of Assemblyman Adriano D. Espaillat, a Democrat of Manhattan, had to fend off tenants' questions about the heavy support he got from landlord groups in last year's election campaign.

Indeed, the only politician present who did not seem to be enjoying himself was Senator Frank Padavan of Queens, a Republican who wants to keep the rent laws intact. He stood well behind the others on the Capitol steps, suit coat buttoned and hands buried in his pockets, a grim look on his face as speaker after speaker bashed the Governor.

After the demonstration, many of the participants walked to the Legislative Office Building across the street from the Capitol, in search of State Senators to buttonhole. But the Senate, which has rarely stayed in session more than a couple of hours on any recent day, chose to take up 78 bills today, insuring that lawmakers would be busy until well after the buses were back on the Thruway.

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company